An online piece of art depicts a woman, clad in a burqa. Her only visible features: arresting dark eyes flanked by long lashes, and a brown hand flashing the victory sign. Oh, and the words, “I’m a dude” are emblazoned on the burqa.
The artist, Nabigal-Nayagam, writes below the piece, “Wow! It’s me! Would ya look at that”. For a US-based artist, this breaks all kinds of mainstream norms — of race, gender and religion to start with. And yet, every single one of the comments is positive and supportive. Some focus on the art, while others appreciate what it represents, in simple millennial terms (“Yaaasss!”). The scope of Nabi’s art is best described by his Instagram bio, which includes terms like “He/him”, “Thirunambi/Transman”, “Tamizhan”, “Shi’a Muslim” and “Mythology nerd”.
When in the US, the 20-year-old animation student is a practising Muslim by choice, who prefers his friends call him “Nabi” and refer to him as “he”. But when visiting his extended family back in India, things are different. “I’m almost completely closeted. In India, I always pretend to be a straight Hindu girl because I’m always surrounded by family and they don’t let me go anywhere on my own,” says Nabi via email.
Nevertheless, his Tamil identity plays a large, proud role in his art. “I mostly draw from my culture and religious group, since it’s rare to see properly-represented brown people in media here in the West. A lot of people have told me that it has encouraged them to represent their own groups in their art, so I continue it to inspire more people to embrace being themselves,” says Nabi.
He has gathered a modest following since his first Instagram post in November 2016 — a little over 3,000 — though his artistic debut was on the more old-school online platforms. He recalls, “I started sharing my art on public platforms when I was around 14, simply because I wanted to feel included in my circle of friends who were on DeviantArt and Tumblr. I started out drawing fanart, and then suddenly somehow my art blew up when I started posting more of my own characters.”
Nabi took the cue. Though he began with a couple of Captain Americas, his Instagram account is now dominated by his “own characters”: from a steely, hijab -clad fairy in a forest who totes a bow-and-arrow with elan, to lovable, oversized brown men and women dancing happily in traditional garb.
And then there’s the gender contention, which dominates most of his art. “I grew up with very little exposure of LGBT characters and role models, so my goal is to create art for the next generation of LGBT kids,” he explains.
Hence, you have men of different skin tones locked in embrace and women in party mode on a beach, all sharing space with beautiful, traditional pieces like a depiction of a traditional kutcheri, and recreations of scenes from both Hindu and Islamic lierature.
One of the art works he drew was a poster for Masjid al-Rabia, a mosque in the US that caters to women and LGBTQIA Muslims.
“The event poster I did for them was about an Eid party centered around LGBT Muslims, since there is not much space or inclusiveness for us... Mahdia Lynn, the mosque leader, had requested me to draw anything that came to mind, so I drew a pair of Muslim lesbians, one in niqab and the other without a headscarf, since not all Muslim women wear hijab.”
Needless to say, both Nabi and Lynn received a lot of flak — even threats — for the poster and the event. But if you ask the young artist, his least favourite among the responses to his art is something else entirely.
“The most rewarding and disheartening feedback (yes, at once) I have ever received was when a friend in Class X laughed so hard he cried because my characters all had incredibly small heads and extremely large bodies. I hadn’t noticed at all beforehand!” says Nabi, adding, “Even though I was upset at him for a while, it made me a lot more conscious of how I was drawing and gave me the spite to put more effort into my art. I still get a lot of actual negative comments on my work, such as about how my drawings offend people but I just ignore them.”
You can follow Nabi’s work on Instagram, through his handle @ab_Varaham.